Lesson from One of the Greats

\"\"Twelve or so years ago, I went to a friend’s anniversary party in downtown Manhattan and found myself seated next to the late, great Frank McCourt. He was delightful and captivating in every way – and very modest. He was also a neighbor of sorts up in Connecticut where he lived with his wife, and where I was about to relocate to, full time. It was the first I had met him, though I would do so on a couple more occasions up here before he died in 2009.

He may have asked me what I did for work, as most people do by way of icebreaking at a New York social gathering. That was an easy question before I became a full-time writer, when I was TV news producer – a job that was concrete and verifiable, the kind with a weekly paycheck. Although I have thousands of pages of unfinished stories aging in cardboard boxes, and now I try to write all day every day, it’s still hard to say, “I’m a writer,” as if I have yet to earn the right.

But of course, I didn’t need to ask Mr. McCourt what he did. Angela’s Ashes had won the author a Pulitzer Prize, and became – and maybe still is – the gold standard for memoir, which then, I think, we called autobiography. I had been staggered by the grace of this book – the hilarious and shattering depiction of his childhood. I asked him, “Do people ever say, “Now I know everything about you?” He smiled, hesitated and then said, quite seriously, “Nobody knows a single thing about me.”

I copied this exchange on an orange post-it, one of three that are stuck on the back of my desk printer. Now that I’m writing a memoir, I think often about his words. This – my – book can’t possibly be a window into me because honestly, who cares about that? What I hope it will reveal, though, is something that will read like a story, with or without my presence in the pages. Even on days when I’ve exposed more than seems right and proper, I am reminded – constantly – of my dinner chat with Frank McCourt. He couldn’t possibly have known that he was giving a future writer the best advice of her career.